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William Corbett:
Two Books

Columbus Square Journal , by William Corbett. Angel Hair Books, 1976. Reissued by United Artists, 172 E. Fourth Street, #9B, New York, NY 10009.

Runaway Pond , by William Corbett. Apple-Wood Books, 1981. Box 2870, Cambridge, MA 02139.

The sturdiest preoccupation in poetry at the moment seems to be that with language-centered writing. It's given a singular genius like Larry Eigner a whole and very useful new ballgame, and on both coasts its principals have the character of self-determined and remarkably coherent activity in publishing as well as in composition. It's to the point that William Corbett shows up occasionally in this company—as critic as well as contributor. If one thinks of specific friends of his life, Clark Coolidge, for example, or Bernadette Mayer (one of the three dedicatees of Runaway Pond ), or Michael Palmer, Lewis Warsh, Lee Harwood, et al., then one may recognize a continuity from elders such as Ashbery or Schuyler to the younger Charles Bernstein or Michael Davidson. But, like so many attempts at such doctrinal neatness, putting Corbett in boxes fails entirely.

I would sooner say—like they say—that Corbett shares very remarkably with Robert Lowell a tonal quality, a specific surface of words and how they sound literally, I find almost not at all in other poets. It's a texture made vivid by an ear I'd think as good as ears

American Book Review 5, no. 6 (Sept./Oct. 1983).


get, a playful, persuasive ear (unlike Lowell's droll and often violent ironies), a charmingly nostalgic ear (a Charles Ives of idioms!), and a physically precise one, which its owner obviously values as a means of getting around in the world. The densities of the writing come from the particularizing of consonants:

 . . . Myself, I spent summers
of my childhood in the northeast
corner of Pennsylvania East Mauch Chunk
later Jim Thorpe and miss driving out
at dusk to look for deer the sweet
langour of those long summer nights
close TV nights safe watching
wrestling after greeting those out
for a stroll from the front porch.
(Runaway Pond , page 32)

More, both texts are "developmental," accumulative and reflective, often, in their content. Both are proposed as "continuities," Columbus Square Journal a "day book" of writing from "12 October 1974–12 October 1975" with recurrent moods, things in mind, echoes of others—and Runaway Pond is also well anchored in a day's place , albeit several, with turns of season, city to country, past to present, a dumb loss of pond to sad absence of father, equally willful and resonant.

What gets said in any of these poems is complexly familiar:

                                                  7 January
I gave up my husband
then my wife. He moved away
I walked out on her
got a writ, a lawyer
wrote out our lives' garbage
not for love or money.
The children looked after themselves.
I lived alone together
alone apart. He was a bully
beat me until I let
the world know. She was cold
without heart two years
out of eight we kept
going away we kept coming back
to piss and moan, to pick fights


getting close to cutting loose
from each other. White Red Black
Come then blood then ink.
(Columbus Square Journal )

Narrative is a dependable resource but a story forever beyond solution or resolve. It is specifically a life , which again makes a parallel with Robert Lowell's work but equally with poetry as various as Charles Olson's or John Wieners'. Possibly it is New England which demands such witness, both of it and oneself. The tenacity of place in all its emotional and physical presence is unique in Corbett's writing, certainly in relation to his contemporaries with very few exceptions.

Finally one wants to say so much more than one can, in brief, because this poetry (and these are but two of its collections, however remarkable) has such capable and ranging articulation, so quietly present. There is no one more gifted with respect to knowing how and doing it. But were it a case even of such brilliance, simply, there would be, finally, much to compete with it. One believes with Pound, therefore, that nothing counts save the quality of the affection , and only emotion endures . The ground, the world so recognized, is of primary human value:

 . . . I want
to roll out of bed and get it on paper
before the water has boiled, the hours
pass and my arthritic hands clench.
(Runaway Pond , page 40)


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